Trash or Treasure: Spelter equals lower value

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News
Gail Berkove with her two  sculptures.

It sounds like a wholesome ingredient in a loaf of wheat bread or granola, but the word “spelter” means something different in the world of antiques appraiser Richard Fedorowicz told Gail Berkove at a recent appraisal session held at the landmark downtown auction house and art gallery.

Berkove inherited the two pieces she inherited from her mother-in-law, who “was a romantic and loved antiques,” she shared with the appraiser and other attendees of the Antiques Roadshow-style event. “I’ve had them ever since she passed away and keep them in my living room,” she added.

The pair of statues are probably French, the appraiser said, pointing out the signature on one that reads “Mestais” and a title “Le Sauveteur,” meaning “rescue” or “lifesaver.” The other sculpture is signed Raphanel, an artist who lived from 1876 to 1957. Neither work has a foundry mark, which would indicate a higher quality casting. “These are both cast pieces, and unfortunately not among the better spelter sculptures,” Fedorowicz explained. “The fact that they are spelter lowers their value significantly.”

Fedorowicz said spelter is made up of copper, zinc and lead instead of the better bronze. The handy website had interesting additional information about the zinc-like material, also known as “pot metal” and a good way to tell the difference between the two:  “Spelter is a synonym for a zinc alloy. Figurines, candlesticks, and other pieces were made of spelter and given a bronze or painted finish. Early twentieth-century Art Nouveau and Art Deco figures and lamps were often made of spelter. The metal has been used since about the 1860s to make statues, tablewares, and lamps that resemble bronze. Spelter is soft and breaks easily. To test for spelter, scratch the base of the piece. Bronze is solid; spelter will show a silvery scratch.”

Berkove’s works, which Fedorowicz dated to about 1900, also have some patina issues, the appraiser said, which lowers the value even more, estimating their value at about $100 each, or $200 for the pair.

She was happy to find out more and likes them despite the information the appraiser shared.  “While the appraisal amount was less than I had hoped, I appreciated learning about the items and how their worth was determined,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “I inherited the statues from my mother-in-law and they reflect her love of drama and sense of adventure. They will always be a treasure to me.”

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.               

About This Item

Item: French sculptures

Owned by: Gail Berkove

Appraised by: Richard Fedorowicz, DuMouchelles

Estimated value: approx. $200 for the pair